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Paths of Faith

Rob Pierson
On Limits (May 2016)
Paths of Faith in the Landscape of Science
by George M. Strunz, Michael R. Miller, and Keith Helmuth
Reviewed by Rob Pierson

There are many fine books exploring the relation of science and faith, including excellent texts by Friends who are scientists, theologians, or both. Paths of Faith in the Landscape of Science: Three Quakers Check Their Compass, however, offers something distinctively Quaker. Canadian Friends Strunz, Miller, and Helmuth use their personal life stories – testimonies – to show continuing revelation as involving all truth, whether spiritual or scientific.

Friend Strunz is a retired forestry research scientist. Early in life, while studying organic chemistry, he realized that, in science, the unseen does not have to be taken on faith. “Although unseen, the reality of the molecule is rigorously verifiable by the study of its behavior.” Strunz considered whether the same reasoning applies to religious questions and determined that supernatural beliefs did not hold up to scrutiny, thus he rejected supernatural aspects of the Christian tradition. His personal experience of reverence and awe in nature led him to pantheism, to accept that “God and the Universe . . . are indistinguishable.”

On another path, as a musician and composer, Friend Miller associates religion with the power of the imagination. For Miiler, religion is a communal artwork, and “as long as we don’t confuse what we imagine with what is real we will be fine.” Earlier in life, Miller rejected supernatural Catholic beliefs, embraced the insights of science, and became a Friend. Like Strunz, he concluded that the “Creator and Creation are one and the same.” Every living creature needs self-awareness – to know what is not itself. We humans can also imagine our deeper interconnection with what is not humanity, with the larger reality of which we are part. For Miller, morality arises naturally once we discover we are not the center of the universe and stop behaving like “nature’s spoiled brats.”

Friend Helmuth focuses his writing on discovering natural morality in a time of ecological crisis. Helmuth has a background in business, and he helped found the Quaker Institute for the Future. As a child, picking up an arrowhead at the edge of a field, he began to recognize his place within – not just his place within a particular culture, but within all of humanity, evolutionary history, and the Earth’s biosphere. In contrast, current human economics refuse to acknowledge their place within the environment. “From the standpoint of science, [this is] devolutionary . . . From the standpoint of religion, it is blasphemous.” For Helmuth, faith communities must respond to this wrong-headedness – because religions are our collective strategies for adaptation. They are our means for regaining our sense of solidarity with the commonwealth of all life.

As Friends and friends, these three authors come to a similar understanding of their place in a landscape that is stripped of the supernatural, but is still awesome, revelatory, and full of ethical imperatives. All three find a moral compass to guide them on their way, and all three demonstrate what I would call a distinctive vitality.

Well into their “retirement years,” they continue to engage the issues, enrich their communities, and weave lives that integrate reflection, beauty, and action. It is worth noting, that Strunz, the scientist, painted the image on the cover of Paths of Faith in the Landscape of Science, evoking a sense of journey in the midst of nature, along a forest path.

As a bonus, the book’s introduction provides a lively synopsis of the evolving dialogue between science and religion, and provides exceptional references to other helpful texts. This book is a short read and would work well for a small discussion group.

These authors suggest that Quakerism itself is a religious path at home in the landscape of science, and I would like to agree. However, not all Friends in the world community will find themselves “at home” with non-theist or pantheist expressions of their faith. Enjoy the authors’ company for a few hours, join their journey of discovery, and chart your own path through a landscape illuminated by both faith and science.  ~~~

Rob Pierson is a member of Albuquerque Monthly Meeting (IMYM), a graduate of the Earlham School of Religion, and a systems engineer with a particular interest in pilgrimage, nature, sacred space, and the intimate relation of science and faith.

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